Saturday, April 09, 2005

Anti-FGM progress in Senegal

I wrote an essay last week on female genital mutilation [FGM] and how some high officials in Sierra Leone are not only allowing the practice but overtly promoting it. While African leaders may give a wink and a nod to FGM in practice, they feel enough pressure to oppose it at least in words, which is a start.

Malau, a Congolese reader of this blog, noted:

The core of my problem, is the fact that I am a strong proponent of pride in African cultures and civilizations, while at the same time being quite a Liberal... The problem with the initial Western approach was that it was important to put an end to the excision practices as soon as possible. And they often did not stop to consider what psychological impact this would have on a society that has not yet made peace with the coniving and dominating tendencies of their forme "White" rulers.

I largely concurred:

FGM, like most social mores, can only be changed from the inside not the outside... No one, anywhere in the world, likes to be lectured to by outsiders. Outsiders can help spur the initial phase of change, by getting people talking about it. But utlimately the decisions and the commitment have to come from inside a society.

That's why I was interested to read this article in The Christian Science Monitor on anti-FGM progress in Senegal.

The piece noted that initial attempts by anti-FGM campaigners fell into the trap outlined by Malau.

Campaigners have tried for decades to bring an end to FGM. But their tactics of providing alternative employment to the circumcisers, introducing alternative rites of passage for girls, or demanding legislation to outlaw the practice have all failed to make a dent: an estimated 2 million girls in about 26 African countries are circumcised every year.

Yet real change started in Senegal only when it became a truly local, grass roots effort.

The sea-change in Senegal is being credited to a slow but steady program of human rights education that allows villagers to make up their own minds about whether to abandon female circumcision. Spearheaded by a local rights agency called Tostan, the program's success is proving so eye-catching that the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) is endorsing it as a model... The program is being replicated with some success in Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Mali, and is currently being considered for one of the strongholds of FGM, Somalia, where nearly 100 percent of girls are circumcised.

And the education campaign is not a blunt effort directed solely at lecturing women on FGM, nor is the agency Tostan a strictly anti-FGM agency. They put forth a comprehensive program of health, human rights education and economic development. Once that starts, it reportedly takes a typical period of two to three years before villages decided they want to do away with FGM.

Usually, The public declarations the villages make, amid vibrant celebrations with music, dancing, and speeches from elders and prominent citizens, generally contain other statements about respect for women's rights and children's education.

Having lived in Senegal, I know it's a fairly conservative society, even by West African standards, that doesn't instantly adopt every "fad" that comes through. Tostan's approach is clearly an introduction of modern ideas done with a respect for traditional ways.

And it appears to be making progress.


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